2 Corinthians 1:3-7 New International Version (NIV):
3 “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 5 For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. 6 If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. 7 And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.”
Does the Bible verse above describe how you usually respond to suffering? I bet not. At best, my response to suffering results in my pulling away quietly from reality, hedging myself in with sports or books or movies, so I don’t have to deal. Denial. At worst, I lash out at people who are not the cause of my trial.
The verse above probably best describes how I respond to other people’s suffering. “Don’t worry about it. It’ll pass. You’ll be stronger for this.” As I type I notice that what I say isn’t false, it’s true, but most often I tend to refer to truth when I don’t need to be the one to live it.
Opportunity for Unbelievers
So often we hear atheists snicker about the existence of a loving God who has a suffering people. To them, this is incoherent. If God is all-powerful and He loves you, why do you suffer, they ask. They use these instances to play on our propensity to avoid the problem. That we may act on the call of our hearts to lash out, instead of reach out.
But when you consider atheism, you should know that this is, in fact, the incoherent worldview. Atheism does not provide answers to the problem of evil; it just eliminates it as a problem.
If this is a God-less existence, what is suffering? See, suffering can only be seen as bad or wrong or something that ought not happen if we have an understanding of what ought to be. Atheism, if true, eliminates oughts.
An ought-less world is one in which what happens just happens. It’s a world of chocolate or vanilla choices and chocolate or vanilla results. Nothing is good or bad. Things are just different, but equal in value, like the choice between chocolate or vanilla ice cream. After all, who’s to say that one flavor is better than the other? What proof can we submit to decide? (Hint: It’s chocolate. Or is it?) An existence without a standard of what ought to happen reduces life to these kind of choices.
Thus, every complaint or displeasure can only describe the condition of the complainer and says nothing truthful of the deed done or object of the complaint. So, as such, the unbeliever lacks the ability to describe or explain reality. Truth exists within only their personal whims and not as something that exists apart from them. For example, displeasure of being punched in the nose only describes the way the punched individual feels about the event and not the potential wrongness of the act itself against them. But nobody really lives this way. That’s the incoherence of atheism.
So when unbelievers try to play us against God because of our sufferings, they entirely miss the point.
God’s Plan for Suffering
The point of suffering according to the text above is to establish God as the “Father of compassion” and the “God of comfort”. Notice 2 Corinthians 1: 3-7 doesn’t tell us that troubles won’t occur. People of God were never promised a trouble-free life. These are the heretical rantings of false prophets and prosperity gospel preachers. It says we will be comforted in our troubles. (v.4) This comfort is found in the Cross.
When reading this verse, it is important to understand that this letter is written by Paul on behalf of himself and his traveling companion Timothy to the church in Corinth. So when he uses the words “we” and “our”, in some cases, he is referring to himself and Timothy. “You” and “your” is referencing the church in Corinth. In other cases, these words refer to Paul, Timothy, and the church all together as believers.
So not only does God comfort us (everyone) in our troubles through the saving work of Christ, we are to use this truth to comfort others. Paul achieves this by acknowledgement God’s well-known sustaining acts within Paul’s life. The afflictions of persecution, imprisonment, threats of death, anxieties and impoverishment, for those, God has provided a peace for Paul and in turn, he passes on comfort to those also in trouble. “If we (Paul and Timothy) are distressed, it is for your (Corinth) comfort and salvation; if we (Paul and Timothy) are comforted, it is for your (Corinth) comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we (Paul and Timothy) suffer.” (v.6)
So it is easy enough to understand the afflictions for which Paul has received comfort. But what form did this comfort take for Paul? Bible commentator Colin G. Kruse describes Paul’s deliverance from his affliction, like deadly peril, as one of the ways that God provided comfort for him. He also details relief from anxieties that Paul experienced when Titus joined him in Macedonia. It, however, is clear that he was never exempt from persecution and trial because of God providing comfort. Kruse also offers that “up to the time of writing God has delivered Paul out of all his afflictions in the sense that none of them had proved fatal” (p.61, TTNTC)
Now, why should troubles occur in the first place? Again, what is the point?
The answer has much to do with our sin. Clay Jones, in his terrific book “Why Does God Allow Evil”, gives a short answer:
“God could not simply excuse Adam and Eve’s sin because the lesson to free beings would then be ‘Sin is okay, God will overlook it.’ But to demonstrate His love for us and to atone for the grave seriousness of sin, God sent His only Son, Jesus, to die for rebellious humans. Now, we humans who trust God and accept Jesus’ death on the cross of our sins learn the horror of rebellion through experiencing rebellion’s devastating results. We are also learning to overcome evil with good. This knowledge prepares us to be fit inheritors of God’s kingdom, where– because we are learning the horror and stupidity of sin here on earth– we will be able to use our free will rightly as we reign with Jesus forever and ever.” (p.208)
Know that much of the quote above deserves further explanation and that is what Jones’ informative book provides.
So according to Jones, God has a reason for our suffering. He has a plan the eventually leads us to being in His presence “forever and ever”. We play a part in this as believers. We comfort those who suffer because we have found comfort in the finished work of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
May you personally find this kind of comfort in your life.
Source: The Tyndale New Testament Commentary of 2 Corinthians by Colin G. Kruse (p. 61, TTNTC)